Personal Information Management Tool Computer Science Essay

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Personal Information Management (PIM) is a growing area of interest as it allows individuals to make better use of the limited resources, like time, to manage everyday information in this current world of information overload. Email plays an important role in people's daily lives and information management. From a simple asynchronous communication tool, email has evolved to perform multiple functions ranging from task management to personal archiving and contact management, resulting in email overload. This paper aims to introduce the concept of PIM as well as the use and effectiveness of email as a PIM tool. It also addresses the issues of email overload and discusses the possible technical solutions.

1. Introduction

The concept of Personal Information Management (PIM) has been gaining widespread popularity in recent years due to the explosion of electronic documents and technological advancements leading to more electronic related activities. PIM is the study and practice of the activities of a person to manage information in order to complete both work-related as well as personal tasks, fulfilling various roles and responsibilities (Jones, 2007).

There are many PIM tools used by people such as email, voicemail, PDAs, calendar organizers, smartphones. The array of tools has led to digital information being scattered into 'Information Islands' where each is supported by different PIM tools (Jones, 2008). This diverse use of PIM tools has resulted in information fragmentation which is undesirable. The choice of PIM tool to use is determined by the type of information and task to be managed (Majid, San, Tun & Zar, 2010).

We strive to achieve information richness using these PIM tools, thus allowing us to be more efficient and effective with the tasks and processes that use this information. Email has evolved to be an important PIM tool for many people due to its ability to cover many tasks and manage various forms of information. In this paper, the focus will be on email, how it is being used as a PIM tool, how its misuse has led to information overload and finally how to make it work effectively as a PIM tool.

2. Overview of PIM

A formal definition of Personal Information Management (PIM) is given by Jones (2008) as:

Personal Information Management (PIM) refers to both the practice and the study of the activities a person performs in order to acquire or create, store, organize, maintain, retrieve, use, and distribute the information needed to complete tasks (work-related or not) and fulfill various roles and responsibilities (for example, as parent, employee, friend, or community member). PIM places special emphasis on the organization and maintenance of personal information collections (PICs) in which information items, such as paper documents, electronic documents, e-mail messages, Web references, and handwritten notes, are stored for later use and repeated reuse.

PIM is about the information management of an individual where it encompasses searching, retaining, organizing, as well as securing the flow of information (Jones, 2008). It also plays an important role in many individuals' lives as more information, electronic or physical, is being handled. Without the proper management of information, it may create a chaotic lifestyle where valuable information is lost, leading to missing important appointments, stress and anxiety (Majid et al., 2010). The benefits of good PIM stretch to more than just the personal aspects but also include becoming a better employee at work by being better organized with the information that is dealt in the work environment.

PIM activities can be grouped by the following (Jones, 2008) which is also shown in Figure 1 in the Appendix:

Finding / re-finding information activities (Acquire): This activity group includes the search for information through electronic means (Internet search engines, Window Explorer search function, and email application) and physical means (browsing books in libraries and reading newspapers/magazines/books). It also includes activities like provisioning of information to meet other people's information needs such as posting in Wikis and replying emails.

Keeping activities (Organize): This group concerns activities to determine if the information is to be kept for future use and its follow-up actions like how this information should be kept and should this piece of information be acted upon.

Meta-level activities (Retrieving and Maintain): This group of activities include: maintain, manage privacy and the flow of information, measure and evaluate personal information.

Additionally, Boardman (2004) offers a macro level of PIM that relates the relationship by Jones (2008) to four PIM activities as seen in Figure 2 in the Appendix.

This begs the question of why good PIM is needed. In many situations, people do not get appropriate information richness which means that the information presented to individuals is not timely, or not in the right format, or not even in the right place. So with better PIM, we can look to reduce or may be even eliminate this issue, resulting in better use of our resources for other activities. This will in turn translate to better working styles, improved productivity and hence reduce work-related stress and anxiety. Proper PIM also encompasses sound privacy management due to the increase of user identity theft, loss of personal information and unexpected leakage of personal information (Kudo et. al., 2007).

3. PIM Tools and Their Environments

PIM environments can be divided into the physical and digital domains as illustrated in Figure 3 in the Appendix.

High-level PIM such as the organization or retrieval of personal information may be more common among people since it is the operational level of PIM which is more individually based (Kelly, 2006). This has led to the use of many tools for PIM, with some generic tools like email, smart phones, table organizers and file managers. Boardman (2004) defines PIM tools as tools used by individuals to manage a collection of personal information items, including support of the four PIM sub-tasks defined, namely acquisition, organizational, maintenance and retrieval. Within a single tool, for example email (Microsoft Outlook), it encompasses several PIM related functions such as communications (in the form of email), calendar (to track and manage activities and appointments), contact list (to manage contact information) and task list (to manage to-do lists).

Technological advancements have had a major impact on the tools used in the digital personal information domain. With these advancements, there is an increasing amount of personal information to be managed with more users moving into the digital domain, as well as the evolution of more complex and feature-rich PIM tools. There are also efforts to integrate these tools in order to reduce information fragmentation and improve interoperability.

Email has become an integral part of many individuals' routines. It has moved out of the basic function of an asynchronous communication tool, to one that facilitates the many functions of PIM. This has in turn led to the issue of email overload. In the following sections, digital personal information domain with email as the tool will be discussed.

4. Email as a Personal Information Management (PIM) Tool

Email is one of the most successful computer applications yet developed. The success and popularity of email has led to high daily volumes of email being sent and received and today the world exchanges over 90 billion emails each year. There are millions of email users worldwide who spend significant proportions of their work time using email. The convenience of email - both its blessing and its curse - has made it a multi-purpose communication tool. In this section, we will look at the advantages and the disadvantages of using email as a PIM tool particularly for task management personal archiving and contact management.

4.1 Advantages of Email

Email can function as a personal organizer or planner when used for PIM. Due to its convenience and functional flexibility, many email applications nowadays have moved from a simple asynchronous communications tool with a mixed bag of contents and is used for multiple purposes such as document delivery and archiving, calendars, task managers, contact managers, reminders and alerts, and appointment scheduling (Whittaker & Sidner, 1996).

According to Whittaker, Bellotti and Gwizdka (2006), email as an information conduit means that the inbox, folders, search, and sort functions are used to support core PIM functions of task management, personal archiving, and contact management. Task management allows users to classify emails according to tasks leading to better management of related material; personal archiving relates to how emails are stored and retrieved by the users; and contact management relates as to how a user email contacts are sorted and accessed. A system such as Microsoft Outlook is an example of a system that satisfies these three categories.

Whittaker et al. (2006) also argued that email platforms are the most sensible basis for PIM tools because they are a familiar environment for most people. Email has reasonable capabilities in dealing with different types of personal data in electronic mode. Frequently, there is no clean separation between PIM and task management, and users do not manage information simply to retrieve it later - they also store items as reminders of the tasks they have to perform. Their study also highlighted the importance of the content of email and its metadata such as the sender, the date it was received, the context and other pertinent information as critical keys to linking information to ongoing tasks in both work and personal life. 

The incoming and outgoing stream of email has been related to task management activities for the user. When using email as a task manger, users would mark emails mark as unread, or leave it in the inbox, or even re-email to themselves important email messages as task reminders (Whittaker & Sidner, 1996; Duchenaut & Bellotti, 2001). In some cases, drafts are also saved as to-do lists.

Therefore, email is seen by many as ideal for keeping, finding and managing information with the inbox being used for information processing, limiting, encoding, and accumulation. Moreover, it provides context information about a document. Besides simulating the physical work environment, people prefer to use applications that are already open to support PIM rather than applications that hive off information into separate, awkward-to-access structures such as contact lists or to-do lists.

4.2 Disadvantages of Email - Information and Email Overload

Since email is used vastly throughout the world as a means to communicate, sorting all this communication is a tedious task that gets done daily and is time consuming.

We discuss two of the research studies on email and its role in information and email overload. Definitions for information overload include too much relevant information for one to process, high volume of irrelevant information with only a small portion actually being useful, large amount of information causing one the inability to process it efficiently and to use it effectively (Edmunds & Morris, 2000). Thereby, email being one of the most popular modes for disseminating and communicating information contributes to information overload.

Whittaker and Sidner (1996) define email overload as the email application performing more functions than it was developed for. They conducted interviews and collected data from different user groups such as high level managers, first level managers, professional workers and administrative assistants. They focused their research on how email was utilized in the workplace, how email overload occurred as well as how people dealt with the high volume of information.

The study showed that although the participants were receptive to using email as a communication tool and that they acknowledged usage of email had more advantages over face-to-face and telephone communication, some still had major issues with using email to manage information. These issues stem from the three major email functions: task management, personal archiving and asynchronous communication. Participants were found to have too many un-filed emails in their inboxes due to two reasons: first, the inbox was used as a task manager and second, information was not filed into folders either due to additional effort required or users do not see the benefits of doing so.

Increasingly, email is used to delegate and receive work. When the amount of daily incoming mail and keeping track of tasks are combined, users simply end up with too many emails in their inboxes. According to Whittaker and Sidner (1996), there are four types of emails in the inbox; the "To dos" where emails are kept in the inbox to serve as reminders of incomplete tasks, the "To reads" where emails are so long that users do not have the time to go through them, the "Messages of indeterminate status" where users are unable to ascertain the importance of the emails straight away, and the "Ongoing correspondences" where users tend to track and save not only their own, but other people's replies to the conversation. Based on the characteristics of "to dos" and "ongoing correspondences", one can see the email functions of task management and asynchronous communication in action.

Filing is a form of personal archiving and researchers have found that it is a cognitive task which users have difficulty performing it effectively. This study highlighted four barriers to filing with the first being users were worried about forgetting where the information was stored. Secondly, they could not decide whether the information is valuable enough to be kept. Thirdly, the definitions for folder names may be forgotten which would lead to "failed folders". The fourth and final barrier being how the usage of folders fails when the size of these folders are either too small or too big. Therefore, because of additional effort and no perceived benefits, users would rather leave the emails in the inbox and use full-text search when they need to retrieve information.

Whittaker and Sidner (1996) identified three user strategies for handling email overload by being: no filers, frequent filers and spring cleaners. Based on the final figures, it showed that the higher one's role in the organization, the more infrequent they manage their email as well as how they - in this case, managers - used email much more than other workers. This was categorized by having four out of six no filers being managers in that they do not use folders to organize their emails, only one manager out of the five frequent filers where emails were house-kept often and folders were used, and four out of seven spring cleaners were managers who filed their large inboxes occasionally.

In contrast, Dabbish and Kraut (2006) defined email overload as "... users' perceptions that their own use of email has gotten out of control because they receive and send more email than they can handle, find, or process effectively". Their study questioned whether email overload was measurable and related to job functions as well as whether there were any consequences as a result.

They conducted a survey on several different-sized organizations where Microsoft Outlook was the major email application used. They found that jobs with higher interdependence and higher task variations, the number of projects, the number of weekly meetings and the perceived importance of email for work increased the email volume one would receive. Email work importance and volume influenced the frequency of checking email and filing messages in folders. The more important people perceived the email to be, the more often they checked their inboxes and used inboxes to store their outstanding tasks. They were also less likely to file messages into folders or even to delete them. This is an important factor contributing to email overload.

Tests showed that higher feelings of email overload were linked with a decrease in task coordination. It was surprising to note that restricting the times of checking email resulted in increase of task coordination feelings. The data also revealed that having more email folders leads to greater feelings of email overload which contradicted Whittaker and Sidner (1996)'s findings. Dabbish and Kraut proposed that 'spring cleaners' (a term used by Whittaker and Sidner) may have felt failure in controlling the mailboxes despite the usage of folders. The more folders there were, the harder it was for users to identify the correct folder in the hierarchy for filing and retrieval. Thus, task interdependence and email overload were not related, but rather it was the perceived importance of email communication and email volume that influenced feelings of email overload.

Both studies looked at email overload from different angles. Whittaker and Sidner analyzed the characteristics of email, the barriers of information organization and user strategies for handling email overload. On the other hand, Dabbish and Kraut focused their research on the human factors in dealing with email overload, namely, job interdependence, perceived email importance and feelings of email overloading.

The limitations of both these studies are similar in that data could not be collected over a period of time due to logistics and privacy issues. Only a snapshot of the situation was taken and subsequent behavioral and situational coping strategies could not be examined. Reliability of the answers given during the survey and interviews was also a factor.

It is recommended that future research extend to different email applications and to wider user groups. Examination of the psychological factors such as user expectations on email response, relation of task interruption will also be useful. Most importantly, studies should look at improving email applications to support users' needs.

5. Email Applications with PIM Functions

With continually advancing technology, there is an abundance of email applications available in the market that provides various PIM functions depending on the users' needs as well as budget. Some examples are Microsoft Outlook which is a commercial client-based email application; Gmail which is a free web-based email application; and Spicebird which is a free and downloadable integrated email, calendaring and instant messaging application with intuitive user interface and integration.

Outlook provides advanced e-mail organization, search, communication and social networking features. With intelligent use of virtual folders, fast message searching, flagging, grouping and threading, Outlook makes it easier to deal with large amounts of email. Users can easily manage their inbox, schedule, and contacts as well as connect to various e-mail and social networks and obtain access to their email information anywhere with the Outlook Web and mobile applications. In addition, Outlook enables users to ("Outlook 2010 features and benefits"):

Combine multiple e-mail accounts, calendars, and address books and easily manage them from a single, centralized view.

Manage your schedule and view multiple Outlook calendars, Windows Live, or other shared calendars, in a streamlined horizontal display.

View the availability of a person and reach out to them using a variety of communication methods ― all on a new easy-to-access contact card.

Get additional information about people, such as mutual friends and other social information, and stay better connected to your social and business circles through the new Outlook Social Connector which is the integration of Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Windows Live Messenger into Outlook.

Offering over 7 GB of free storage and defaulted HTTPS encryption which keeps mails secure, Gmail provides good PIM functions such as ("Google's approach to email"):

'Priority Inbox' which is a function that automatically identifies important messages and separates them out from everything else.

Sharing updates, photos, videos and more online.

Compatible functions on smartphones such as iPhone and Android.

'Tasks' which is the simple to-do list that keeps track of schedule.

Labels which can easily be dragged onto messages and messages into labels, just like folders.

See previews of photos, videos, and reviews via the email message instead of just links.

Send SMS text messages.

Talk face-to-face with Gmail voice and video chat as well as chat with multiple people without multiple windows or open a group discussion.

In some cases, the choice of email used is driven by job requirements. For instance, some people will continue to use Microsoft Outlook for their personal email because it is mandated for use at the office, while others may use Outlook when they have to but use Gmail otherwise. However, studies show that many users choose to use web-based emails rather than client-based email applications as users are beginning to access and manage their personal information on the Web. The webmail systems built trust in that they can storage users' email safely, and support access to users' accounts on any computer as long as the users can connect to the Internet.

6. Enhancing Email for PIM

With the arguments given above showing how email should and should not be used for PIM particularly for task management, personal archiving and contract management, there have been several studies done to argue that email should be redesigned to integrate the various functions it is being currently used for. On the other hand, there are also studies advocating how email should be used strictly for what it was meant to be, and instead to better enable it to connect with other tool-specific PIM softwares in order not to overburden email and its users.

Whittaker, Gwizdka, Erickson, Grudin and Levy (2005) provided both sides of the arguments as to why email should and should not be integrated with other functions. They proposed that the keys to improving email would be collaborative workflow with task inference and management with "much progress being made recently in areas such as machine learning and text processing, both of which may allow email messages to be analyzed in promising new ways" (p. 44).

Similarly, Whittaker et al. (2006) proposed a 'centralization' technique to reduce information fragmentation whereby all PIM is located in email with direct support by explicitly building PIM functions into it. This approach, exemplified by Microsoft Outlook, aims to provide task management, contact management and calendaring within a single application.

For this technique, Whitaker et al. (2006) explained how for the purpose of task management, messages can be classified by tasks in the inbox for easier process since related items can be collapsed into a single list item which is viewable every time the user accesses the inbox thereby reducing overall inbox clutter, increasing task salience and improving reminding. However, there is a dependence on using threads to determine whether messages relate to a common task. Bellotti, Ducheneaut, Howard, Smith and Grinter (2005) developed the idea of 'thrasks' instead which are user-customizable collections based on threads and represents a task collection more than just a series of messages. On top of that, to effectively support reminding, automatic methods to detect and highlight critical tasks are also required.

For personal archiving, Whittaker et al. (2006) proposed assisted filing where machine learning techniques can be used to analyze message headers and content, derive folder definitions and make recommendations to users about how they might categorize incoming inbox documents. Alternatively, users also rely on searching or sorting using message headers to access long-term information. For those relying on search, Google's Gmail has tackled the main problem of finding messages and is vast improvements on previous email search that greatly facilitate access to archives.

For contact management, Whittaker et al. (2006) argued for the automatic extraction of information from email with customizable systems. Besides identifying important contacts automatically using message header information such as frequency, longevity of communication and likelihood of response, it should also be possible to automatically extract additional information, for example from signature files or web pages, which could then be used to populate contact address fields.

Conversely, Whitaker et al. (2005) argued that email should not be overburdened with other functions as it is not efficient at dealing with its own primary function and that studies have suggested how people prefer a variety of applications with 'core competence' focus. Hence, the best strategy would be for users to migrate some of email's usages to other purpose-specific applications such as using a dedicated contact manager rather than the email address tool. Enabling data level integration of these functions and allowing users access to that data via multiple interfaces would be ideal.

Information or data extraction, in contrast to centralization, aims "to migrate PIM functions and information from email into dedicated applications to provide direct PIM support" (Whittaker et al., 2006) by making email data easily accessible to those applications to reduce fragmentation. However, due to email's role as an information conduit, using it as a task manger with frequent access by users aids in opportunistic reminding. With a dedicated task manager, users have to actively remember to access it as well as identify new tasks to be entered. Therefore, abandoning email for task management in favor of relying on dedicated management tools seems unlikely based on the current state of affairs.

Whittaker et al. (2006) also reasoned that since personal archiving and contact management are less closely tied to the conduit function of email, they would be more suited for data extraction. However, evidence still shows that email has significant benefits for both functions such as providing contextual information that may be lost when attachments or contacts are extracted from the original email context and integrated into dedicated PIM applications. Therefore, it makes it unlikely that users will abandon email in favor of contact managers or file systems.

In summary, although the solution of building PIM functions directly onto email and migration of PIM functions from email offer distinct advantages, neither currently solves the problem of email and PIM. Instead, a combination of both would be the solution for greater dedicated support for PIM within email itself, as well as improved data extraction from email into other PIM applications.

7. Conclusion

The requirement for any PIM tool is much simpler and more direct than making its user more effective; the ultimate goal for a PIM tool is that it should help reduce the amount of time a user spends locating information. In simpler words, a PIM tool should aid in the organization, management, and use of personal information while helping to protect privacy. Users manage personal information items as a means to an end, usually to support their tasks. Of all PIM related tools, email is most widely used especially due to its easy accessibility as a task manager, but in many cases this use is driven by job requirements.

Email has grown from its original purpose as a communication tool and is now widely used to perform the work of a personal organizer by handling to-do lists, appointment books and contact directories. With the advancements in email technology, email now has the capability of not only performing email management but also calendaring, instant messaging, search and many more personal productivity requirements.

The advantage of using email as a PIM tool is its easy use for items such as task management, personal archiving and contact management. Users keep emails in the inbox, re-email messages or save draft emails as a form of task reminder; users store emails in folder hierarchies or relevant information for later use as personal archiving; and users store and access their contacts records in their emails.

On the other hand, due to the high stream of daily emails and the use of it for PIM purposes, studies have shown how it has led to email and information overload. With this concept, arguments have been made to separate email from PIM-related functions so as to not overburden email users.

Further progress in email research and design shows the need for it to be highly customized and customizable, in order to succeed as a PIM tool. Several email clients such as Microsoft Outlook support PIM functions namely with task management, scheduling, and multiple email and social network integration. An opposing argument, however, is that emails should be email-centric only but should have the capability to work with other PIM-specific tools to enhance email's productivity.


Figure 1. The mapping relationship between Finding, Keeping and Meta-level activities in PIM (Jones, 2008)

Figure 2. Four PIM sub-activities (Boardman, 2004)

Figure 3. Personal Information Environment in Physical and Digital Domain (Boardman, 2004)